Reviews — From the May 2015 issue

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In the nineteenth century, while the European novel was becoming the preeminent narrative form for grown-ups working through the grown-up problems of marriage, adultery, and career, Americans were writing adventure stories for boys. The classic plot featured a white man — or boy, or man-boy — on the run from the “sivilizing” effects of mothers and wives and responsibility, headed straight for the hearts of dark forests and the open arms of a dark-skinned man. Natty Bumppo had his Chingachgook; Ishmael, his Queequeg; and Huck, an older, wiser, tenderer slave named Jim. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of Huckleberry Finn. The great grinding gears of American literary history more or less depend on the myth that Huck and Jim are genuine buddies, and that their friendship is a symbol of golden childhood, homoerotic bonding, the love of the black man for the white, and the utopian pleasures of a floating world free of women. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” was the title of Leslie Fiedler’s unforgettable 1948 essay on our “national myth of masculine love,” which today survives, in whitewashed form, under the moniker “bromance.”

In “Rivers,” from his new collection COUNTERNARRATIVES: STORIES AND NOVELLAS (New Directions, $24.95), John Keene takes aim at this sacred cow and shoots it straight in the face. The story tracks Jim’s life after the journey down the Mississippi — his domestic arrangement involves not one but two women, an excess of “sivilization” that proves its undoing — and culminates with the former raft mates fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War. Maybe the idea sounds a little corny in summary, but the execution is sure. “Rivers” ends with Jim lying hidden between Montezuma cypresses and raising his sights to an open eye. Huck had

his gun aimed at me now, other faces behind his now, all of them assuming the contours, the lean, determined hardness of his face, that face, there were a hundred of that face, those faces, burnt, determined, hard and thinking only of their own disappearing universe, not ours, which was when the cry broke across the rippling grass, and the guns, the guns, went off.

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, by Edgar Degas © National Gallery, London/Bridgeman Images

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, by Edgar Degas © National Gallery, London/Bridgeman Images

Counternarratives is an extraordinary work of literature. Keene is a dense, intricate, and magnificent writer. He was an early member of the Dark Room Collective, which in the Eighties and Nineties incubated a significant group of African-American poets whose ranks included Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange, Kevin Young, and Natasha Trethewey, and he has translated Brazilian writers as well as texts from French and Spanish. Keene’s first book, Annotations (1995), was an experimental autobiography about growing up in St. Louis. In 2006 he collaborated with the artist Charles Stackhouse on Seismosis, an illustrated book of poems. Counternarratives is his first prose book in twenty years. An encounter narrative is usually a letter or diary entry written by a colonizer about his so-called discovery of native peoples, but Keene’s narratives meld fact and fiction, speculating about events that happened, or didn’t happen but could have, or didn’t happen but should have. Some of them are narrated as interior monologues of historical persons: the African-American composer Bob Cole, who cowrote the musical A Trip to Coontown and drowned himself in a stream in the Catskills; the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia; Miss La La, a circus performer of the 1870s known for being hoisted seventy feet in the air by a rope she held between her teeth, who was also the subject of a painting by Edgar Degas. “I aim to exceed every limit placed on me unless I place it there,” La La says of her constrained acrobatics, “because that is what I think of when I think of freedom.

It’s a line that could apply to many of Keene’s characters, but La La is the only one who states it so baldly. Most of the stories in Counternarratives evade such clarity of theme, and many of them forgo conclusions, leaving off with em dashes or ellipses, suspended in a moment of indeterminacy. In “The Aeronauts,” for example, a Philadelphia freedman with an uncanny memory joins the Union Army Balloon Corps. The story ends with him in the balloon, feeling “something not quite fear and not quite elation, I can’t put a name to it, I try to utter it but cannot.” Naming it, Keene suggests, would only contain the moment, and make it less than what it is. His characters refuse to accept freedom that is given by others — they either take it by force or resist it altogether. In this way they are also the avengers of Twain’s Jim, who wasn’t aware of his freedom until he had gone to great trouble to gain it a second time.

“Mississippi River, Vicksburg, Mississippi,” by Brandon Thibodeaux

“Mississippi River, Vicksburg, Mississippi,” by Brandon Thibodeaux

The first and best section of Counternarratives contains psychosexually intense stories about colonization, slave rebellion, witchcraft, sorcery, and Catholicism. “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” begins when a priest named Dom Joaquim D’Azevedo is sent to take over a monastery in Alagoas, Brazil. What D’Azevedo finds is not unlike what the sea captain Amasa Delano discovers in Melville’s Benito Cereno: an invisible order of black slaves controlling, through violence, the visible hierarchies and rituals of daily life. In “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825; or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” a young Haitian slave named Carmel suffers fits of possession during which she draws scenes of mayhem that come to life. What Carmel wants is more complicated than revenge or freedom: she wants to escape, to follow her mother, a voodoo priestess who is long dead and residing in the next world.

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